A journey through a troubled region.
Aug 2, 2008
For as long as I've been alive the old Confederacy has been a land without closure, where history keeps coming at you day after day, year after year, decade after decade, as if the past were the present, too, and the future forever. Cities grew and populations changed in the South, but the Civil War lurked somehow in the shadow of mirror-sided skyscrapers; the holocaust of slavery and the sweet-bitter victories of the civil-rights movement lingered deep in the minds of people on both sides of the color line. Yes there was change, progress, prosperity, and a lot of it. Southerners put their faith in money and jobs and God Almighty to get them to a better place and better times—and for a lot of them, white and black, those times came. The South got to be a more complicated place, where rich and poor—which is pretty much all there was before World War II—gave way to a broad-spectrum bourgeoisie with big-time aspirations. But as air conditioning conquered the lethargy-inducing climate and Northerners by the millions abandoned the rust belt for the sun belt, the past wasn't forgotten or forgiven so much as put aside while people got on with their lives and their business.
Now this part of the country, where I have my deepest roots, feels raw again, its political emotions more exposed than they've been in decades. George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama have unsettled the South: the first with a reckless war and a weakened economy, the second with the color of his skin, the foreignness of his name, the lofty liberalism of his language. Suddenly the palliative prosperity that salved old, deep wounds no longer seems adequate to the task.
Last month I set out driving through Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, roughly retracing the deepest scar in the country—the blazing track of total war left by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864 and 1865. After many years away I was exploring my own blood ties (which include an ancestor named after Sherman by his slave-owning-yet-Unionist parents), but also gauging the tenor of a region that has been critical to every U.S. presidential election since 1932, and may be again. "If you don't win anything in the South, you need 70 percent of the rest of the country," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "If you can win some of the South, that gives you breathing space." Polls suggest Virginia is in play. And the Obama campaign is approaching North Carolina and Georgia as if they might be, although like most people, Black (who is white, and from east Texas, which is deep in Dixie) thinks John McCain will win in both those states if only as the default candidate, the un-Obama.
The South I saw was troubled by changes that go well beyond this "change" election. A generation is growing up with traumas more immediate than those of the 1860s—or the 1960s. Shana Sprouse, 21 and white, and born and raised in Spartanburg, S.C., says she's going to vote for Obama because her 26-year-old boyfriend is racked with cancer and she and he have spent the last two years trying to find ways to pay for his treatment or, now, his hospice. Jobs are disappearing to places that are truly foreign, not mock-strange states like California. New immigrants are introducing brown into a color map that has long been dominated by black and white. There is a sense that a world is ending, maybe not this year but inevitably.
The election, and Obama's candidacy, have focused these anxieties like a lens. I found whites frustrated and indecisive about the campaign, families at odds, generations divided. Many who thought themselves beyond prejudice were surprised by their suspicions of the young black man from up north. Meanwhile, many slave-descended blacks, hugely supportive of the half-Kenyan, half-Kansan, Hawaii-reared Obama, seemed afraid to hope too much, inoculating themselves with pessimism about the chances that any man of color could win the presidency, even this man, even today, or that, if he does, he will survive. As I say, emotions are raw.
People remember what they want to the way they want to, and call it history. That much is true almost any place in the world. But in the South, if people aren't careful, history can start to run their lives, even put them at risk. My father's brother, Tom, was a case in point: in the basement of his split-level home in suburban Atlanta he stored tons of artillery projectiles he'd dug up on Civil War battlefields. Many of them were still live ammunition. "I do worry," he told me in the 1970s. "If this house ever caught on fire, it could do a lot of damage around the neighborhood. You'd hear the last shots fired in the Civil War." (After Tom's death from natural causes in 1987, the core of the collection, duly defused, went to the Atlanta History Center.)
I set off on this trip wondering if Obama's candidacy was helping to pull people in the South together, freeing them of their histories, or pushing them apart. The "postracial" Obama obviously hopes to alter the traditional narrative of race in this campaign and may in fact be doing so, in certain counties of certain states. But in the South, broadly speaking, the past is still too powerful a frame for him to escape fully. This isn't only about black and white, just as the Civil War was about more than slavery. Back then powerful political players in the South saw Obama's fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln as a threat, and a reason for rebellion. All Lincoln's unifying message brought together was the white poor and the white rich, in opposition to him and the blacks whose freedom he sought.
Today the troubling inheritance of the Civil War has been turned into family entertainment. At The Point on Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga, I came across a small group of men who spend much of their spare time and disposable income re-enacting battles and reproducing camp life as it was in the 1860s. ("Civil Wargasms," one of the weekend Confederates at Lookout Point called them.) For many of the hobbyists the delight is in the details, right down to the paper cartridges in their muzzle-loading rifles and handmade buttons on their hot woolen uniforms. "We all know slavery was wrong," says Donald Davidson, whose day job is with the water department in Nashville. "War is not a nice thing. Hopefully we can show we can live together by reliving history like this."
But the subtext of old prejudices keeps creeping in even among the very young. Walking down to The Point one morning, a 12-year-old "private" in this particular Confederate unit told me what he'd heard tell in school about the elections. Next to nothing about McCain. But Obama? "There are too many chances we would take if he became president, you know what I mean?" I said I wasn't sure I did. "I don't know if it's a myth or it's true," said the boy, "but they say that they caught him trying to sneak Iraqi soldiers into the United States."
I remember all the things I heard tell in elementary school in Atlanta during the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, when the schoolyard talk was about a Roman Catholic running for president, and the threat that he'd be putting nigras (which is what you said if you were halfway polite) in Atlanta schools. Certainly much of the similar talk you hear now comes from the obvious suspects, people like Dent Myers, a relic collector and self-caricaturing bigot in Kennesaw, Ga., north of Atlanta. (His shop, Wildman's, is full of the crazy literature of the unreconstructed South, as well as guns, swords, Ku Klux Klan hoods and scurrilous bumper stickers.) Dent argues that when Southerners criticize Obama, "They say, 'He's a Muslim, he's a mulatto Muslim, or quadroon Muslim … [only because] they don't want to use the old N word."
Yet even a third cousin of mine in the mountains of North Carolina, an independent-minded Democrat who voted for Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004, said he can't bring himself to vote for Obama, either. Why? "Because I believe he is a Muslim," said my cousin. Not so, I said. He was raised a Christian and is a practicing Christian. My cousin shook his head. "I just don't believe him," he said.
I couldn't take my eyes off the plastic baby. On a back road outside Monroe, Ga., a crowd of more than 100 people had gathered to commemorate the last mass lynching in the United States, which happened at a place called Moore's Ford, on July 25, 1946. Slowly an old Lincoln Continental rolled into view, only to be confronted by a pair of armed men ordering it to stop. Then out of the woods on both sides of the road, more gun-toting whites emerged. They pulled two black men out of the back of the car. The two black women inside screamed. One of the women told the attackers she knew who they were. Now she was pulled from the car, too, and the other woman with her. Struggling, screaming, crying, the four were wrestled down to a small clearing below the road and shot dead, and shot again, and again. Then, as another actor poured stage blood, a plastic doll was pulled from beneath the shirt of one of the women to represent the fetus said to have died on that killing ground with its mother. The tableau was repulsive, and riveting.
Blacks are no less susceptible to their history than whites in the South, only theirs is the memory of the civil-rights era—whereas Confederates say, "Forget, hell" their mantra is, "Never forget." Obama's candidacy is, wittingly or not, resurrecting the hope and fear and suspicions of those bloody years. The campaign's Southern strategy depends crucially on registering and getting to the polls hundreds of thousands of black voters. Enthusiasm is not a problem among African-Americans, whether in cosmopolitan Atlanta, the fields of Oglethorpe County or a raucous Baptist church in Savannah. The sense of opportunity, of dreams tantalizingly close to fulfillment, is overwhelming. But so is the skepticism, the knowledge deep within one's bones of the likelihood, if not the inevitability, of disappointment. Obama couldn't win, not in the South—or, if he could, they wouldn't let him. And that's the dark side of the hope: it's reminding people of their doubts about a white power structure that some think has never really atoned for its sins.
Bobby Howard, who was standing on the sidelines of the Moore's Ford re-enactment, has spent more than 40 years looking into the unsolved lynchings, "hoping that we can bring some kind of finality," as he put it. Many people in the area thought they knew the names of the culprits, at least four of whom are still alive, according to Howard. But "turning them in would be like turning in the fathers of the county," said Brian Arrington, managing editor of the local Walton Tribune. "If you walk around, the names of the streets are the names of some of the suspects."
The July re-enactment, sponsored by the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, was part carnival, part church service, part rally. Politicians invoked Obama's name again and again, always to applause. But he is a background to their cause, incidental to their narrative of pain, and they sometimes describe him in terms almost as condescending as affectionate. One called him "the little black boy who is going to be president of the United States [because] God has fixed it that way."
This narrative, too, resists change. Richard Rusk, son of former secretary of State Dean Rusk, is part of a committee that had a plaque erected at the corner of the road where the Moore's Ford murders occurred. He did not go to the re-enactment and was not happy with what he heard about it. The baby ripped from the womb is not a known fact, just a widespread, highly potent political rumor. "We want to stay with truth we can prove," he said. But Moore's Ford has created its own storyline now, its own truth.
Of course, it's easy to forget how much of what makes up the Southern mind, especially now, has nothing to do with race. At a Starbucks on Providence Road, in one of the richest neighborhoods in Charlotte, N.C., financial consultant James Ruane, 58, talked about the gleaming city he moved to from Pennsylvania 30 years ago. Charlotte is built on banking and financial service industries that started and grew as something self-consciously regional, he said. "After the Civil War, during the Reconstruction," said Ruane, "the North neutered this place." All the money was in New York. That's where Southern businesses had to go to get it, and often they weren't welcome, even a hundred years later. So the bankers of Charlotte—the founders of Wachovia and what's now called the Bank of America—set out to change that. And as they built their businesses they built their city, almost from the ground up.
Most Southern cities are, to all intents and purposes, new metropolises created by and helped to create the new white middle class in the region after World War II. For the first time, college educations started to be commonplace in the states of the old Confederacy. As incomes grew, suburbs sprawled. At the beginning of this trip, in fact, I almost got lost several times looking for the Dickey family homestead in north Georgia. Driving on roads that might once have led to the dangerous backwoods my father, James Dickey, wrote about in his 1970 novel "Deliverance," I came across vacation cabins and swimming pools instead; no outhouses, certainly, only a growing number of hot tubs and Jacuzzis. The river my father used to canoe in search of the wild in the early 1960s, the Coosawattee, is now mostly submerged beneath a lake, while its upper reaches and its main tributary, the Cartecay, are lined with housing developments. PADDLE FASTER, I HEAR BANJO MUSIC, say the T shirts that ominously reference the movie version of "Deliverance." Now, every summer weekend, kayakers and rafters clot around the rapids like rush-hour traffic on the once wild streams in these mountains.
Merle Black at Emory and his twin brother, Earl Black, at Rice University in Houston have argued in the several books they've published together that a rising business class was key to the South's transformation into a Republican bastion in the last half of the 20th century. The split-levels and ranch houses were filled with people who shared the attitudes and values of small towns and family farms. They mistrusted government, especially the federal government, and they resented any politician who might tax away their newfound prosperity. What the Black brothers call "the most spectacular example of partisan realignment in modern American history" came about because of the GOP's "Southern strategy," which dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower and culminated in the re-election of Ronald Reagan in 1984. The idea was to appeal to the South's newly prosperous suburb-dwellers while using unsubtle talk about "states' rights" and "quotas" to touch nerves earlier galvanized by unreconstructed racists like Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
These white, Christian, middle-class Southerners, the core of Republican strength in the region, are as disconcerted as anyone by the country's current economic turmoil. But that doesn't make them any more amenable to change. While they may be unenthusiastic about McCain (in 10 days' traveling I did not see a single bumper sticker with his name on it), they are leery of Obama's liberalism if not his skin color. "They just don't believe him when he says he'll only tax the richest 1 percent," said Merle Black. Perhaps even more important, they belong to an aspiring class whose members imagine, or dream, they might yet make it into that stratospheric bracket. "Southerners," said Black, "don't identify with where they are but where they want to end up."
Too often for these voters' conservative tastes, the Democratic Party comes across as "preachy," according to Black. He cited a recent appearance by Obama in Powder Springs, Ga. A woman in the audience complained about having to deal with immigrants who spoke Spanish but no English. Obama said they'd learn eventually, but she ought to want an educational system that would teach her kids Spanish. Southerners, said Black, really do not like being told what they ought to want.
Even though the downturn is hitting the South hard—Wachovia Bank in Charlotte announced it will lay off more than 10,000 employees, while Volkswagen's recent decision to open a plant in Chattanooga was greeted with almost as much enthusiasm as the Second Coming—the allegiance of the white business and professional class to the Republican Party seems unshakable. "I think if there were a better economy more people would take a risk on Obama," said Patricia Murtaugh Wise, a lawyer from Nashville sightseeing with her kids at Atlanta's landmark Varsity Drive-In restaurant. Her friends are blaming Bush more than his party, she said. "I'm not sure people are saying, 'Because Bush got us into this, let's vote for a Democrat.' I think people are saying, 'Let's get a new person in there'."
If democrats have hopes for making serious inroads into this Republican bloc, they are probably long term. "As the society becomes more diversified, there's a huge opportunity for the Democratic Party," said Merle Black. Native-born Southerners are a shrinking part of the population, while the numbers of people who are foreign-born like those Spanish speakers, or foreign-born like Yankees, are growing.
" La migra! La migra! " shouted 6-year-old Brenda as I approached the dilapidated trailer where she lives with her mother and siblings and at least one cousin in upstate South Carolina. She thought I might be from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But nobody ran or hid, at least that I could see. Uber, a 22-year-old cousin, said the family had come up from Guadalajara, Mexico, over the last few years. They are among millions of immigrants, legal and illegal, who have moved to the South since the 1990s, heading to Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee for jobs in poultry processing, light manufacturing and construction. Brenda's family does yard work, cuts flowers. "The labor here pays more and it's not so heavy as in Mexico," her mother, Magdalena, explained in Spanish.
The seams in their mobile home were rusted. The driveway in front was covered with aluminum beer cans that one of the older sons flattened by rolling over them with a car, which makes them easier to store and sell as scrap. Brenda's family were among the poorest residents in the poorest section of a poor town. But Brenda and her 3-year-old brother, Kevin, were born in the United States and are American citizens. Brenda speaks English and is starting school. "First grade," she said from behind her mother's skirt. When the elections of 2020 roll around, she'll be able to vote.
Never in the last century and a half has the South been home to so many people who were born and who continue to live outside its history. A Census report estimated that the South's Hispanic population nearly tripled between 2000 and 2006, more than in any other U.S. region; nearly 60 percent of this population was foreign-born. These newcomers have little interest in re-enacting the Civil War, no reason to revive the emotions of the civil-rights movement. They did not move here for iced tea or a more leisurely pace of life. The South to them is future, not past.
In Savannah, Ga., I stopped a pair of women in saris and a young teenage boy pushing a stroller, who were reluctant to talk. Their English was not good and my Hindi nonexistent. They glanced over their shoulders at a young man on a bench who wore casual clothes and a neatly trimmed beard, their in-law. His name was Zuber Malik, from a small city north of Mumbai, he said. He was 29 years old and already had lived and worked in Rhode Island and Wisconsin "in the convenience-store business," when he saw a Dairy Queen franchise up for sale in Glennville, Ga. (population: 3,700). He'd read that Warren Buffett had bought the parent company "and I thought, 'Oh, yes!' " That would mean capital and advertising. His notional idea of the South appealed to him, too. In his hometown in India they still grew cotton. So he came, and then, he said, he prospered. His first child, less than a year old, was born an American. And Zuber, whose wife wears a hijab, or head covering, said he has no problems as a Muslim in the South. "We all believe in God," he tells people. "It says on our dollar bill we believe in God."
Piyush (Bobby) Jindal, the young governor of Louisiana whose parents were Hindu immigrants from India, is an obvious example of how fast assimilation can take place and success can follow for those with educational and economic advantages. At the same time xenophobia, fear of job competition and suspicions of "illegal aliens"—which translates as "criminals" pure and simple in many minds—all work against Hispanic peasants struggling to join the ranks of other upwardly mobile North Americans. Gladys, a 42-year-old maid from El Salvador who fled the war in her country in 1983 (and preferred that her last name not be published) spent most of the last two decades in the Los Angeles area before moving to North Carolina with her two teenage children in 2006. "There is a lot of prejudice," she says. "You hear it when you go to the market, you hear it in the post office. People say they don't want us."
It's not hard to find old-time tensions running very close to the surface. One Saturday last month, in the little town of Crawford, Ga., next to the old train station where the tracks have long since disappeared, cheerleading squads, tae kwon do teams and a troupe of aspiring 3- and 4-year-old ballerinas entertained local crowds at a rally. Whites, blacks and a handful of Mexicans strolled among stands selling barbecue and funnel cakes. Supporters of local political candidates handed out fans bearing their names. A black church group signed up prospective voters. A local schoolteacher and a retired college professor, both of them white, staffed a booth for Obama well supplied with posters and propaganda. (McCain's partisans as such, and as usual, were nowhere to be seen.)
Bill Fincher was working the crowd, as the Republican candidate for county sheriff. He described himself as "very much a conservative" and George W. Bush as his "idol." He'd also, Fincher said, been described as a racist. He was in drug enforcement for a while, and rounded up a crack-dealing network. Everybody in it was black. That was part of the problem. Then, a few weeks ago, a white supporter of his had hung up a noose near a road that leads into a neighborhood that's mostly black. "He had had a lot of property thefts, and he wanted to say any thief is going to be hung," Fincher said. About 175 people came out to protest, and the press got hold of the story.
Fincher, though, seemed genuinely affronted by the charge. "All it is is a ploy to try to get the African-Americans to turn on you," he said. He claimed he didn't really believe in partisan politics when it came to local offices. His mother was an elected county tax commissioner for 27 years, and she was a Democrat. He always voted for her, he said. "I wanted to eat at home!"
He also said that his parents worked hard and he was raised by a black woman, and now that she's old and ailing, he cooks Thanksgiving dinner for her. When an African-American woman who knew him walked by and said hello, Fincher threw his arms around her and gave her a big hug.
Those who have lived long enough to experience the Old South, the New South and the deeply uncertain present-day South know just how long it takes to move the society here. But they know, too, that it does move. William Carter Jr., was born in 1927 in North Charleston, S.C. He lived through the worst days of Jim Crow in the South, and he served in the segregated U.S. armed forces in World War II, which was a moment of awakening for so many black men. You learned not to be afraid, he said. "When you come back home you have the same feeling: 'I'm a man. I'm not a boy no more'." Carter worked as a TV technician for Sears and devoted himself to his duties as a deacon of the church. Now 80, he is president of the National Baptist Deacons Convention. Perhaps because he had seen so much of the past, had seen so much that had changed, and so much that had not, he was sanguine about the future of a black presidential candidate. "Obama is going to win," he said. And if he does not? "Then he is preparing the way for the next."Category: Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping